There are two kinds of top teams in a World Cup: Anxious and eager.
Anxious means edginess and nerves and maybe a small bit of deep-seated dread at the prospect of trying to defend what has been.
Anxious means you have more than something to prove; you have something to defend.
With the 2105 Women’s World Cup looming, there are a handful of powerhouses that have proven themselves at the elite level of international football: the United States, Japan, Germany, Brazil and China.
These are the countries whose national soccer teams have already won championships and accolades and have the hardware to prove it. World Cups. Olympic gold medals. Top rankings from FIFA. The expectations for victory in a women’s soccer world defined now by greater parity among the top sides pushes these teams into the "anxious" category.
Then there’s France. You can see it in the players’ faces. They’re having fun realizing their own greatness as individual stars and as a team. You can read it in the team’s interaction and body language. Prepared. Confident. Talented. Disciplined. Creative.
They are eager.
These days, Les Bleus give off a very airy and downright likeable vibe and are starting to believe that they do not have to accept the stepsister role among the world’s top-rated teams. In fact, who can blame them for embracing predictions that say France might be the team to beat in the 2015 World Cup?
"Yeah, sure, we like to hear this. That means people say we are good. We’re happy to be thought of this way," said veteran midfielder Camille Abily. "I think Germany and the U.S.A., for me, are the two best in the world. But France can do something, like Japan did in 2011."
The idea of World Cup victory has taken on even more meaning for France now that FIFA has chosen the country to host the 2019 Women’s World Cup. What could be better than the hosts as defending champs? The scenario is not a lock, but it seems plausible, realistic, even appropriate, given the way France are playing.
It’s not really news that the French are ready to claim their first World Cup title. For many years, the French have done a stellar job pouring energy and money into their women’s development program.
Since 2009, the women have been given premium training at Clairefontaine, a facility that brought women in to train just as France men’s national program has done. The result has been the emergence of the French women’s first division, Division 1 Féminine. It has also resulted in the development of some of the world’s best players in Abily, Louisa Necib, Élise Bussaglia, Laura Georges, Eugenie Le Sommer, Sarah Bouhaddi, Marie-Laure Delie and Sonia Bompastor, who is now retired.
In 2011, the French played a Women’s World Cup semifinal in Germany against the United States that drew 2 million viewers — a record for a women’s soccer television audience. Since then, France has seen the number of registered female players more than triple, and the number of professionals on contract playing on top pro teams has doubled.
Then there’s Philippe Bergeroo, the head coach hired in 2013 to replace Bruno Bini. A former French national team goalkeeper, Bergeroo was well steeped in the French federation coaching ranks after 25 years coaching men’s teams, mostly as a French federation staff coach.
"When we changed coaches it was good. (Bergeroo) has a lot of experience and I think we need that. After World Cup 2011, we need something more and he gave us this," Abily said. "He knows what we have to do to win. We are more professional. He gave us more physio (improvements and work with) weights and the mentality."
In an interview with L’Equipe, Bergeroo zeroed in on at least one specific area where the French women’s team could see immediate improvement. Bergeroo pointed to Les Bleus 3-1 loss to the U.S. in the 2011 Women’s World Cup semifinals, where France held an astounding 25-11 edge in shots but could not capitalize.
"In soccer," Bergeroo said, "the hardest is finishing and scoring goals." The team seems to have taken care of that by notching 54 goals in this past World Cup qualifying year, not dropping a single qualifying game.
Gaetane Thiney, 29, leads all the French women with 13 goals this past qualifying year. Delie has 9 goals while Le Sommer, a dynamo playmaker and finisher, has 7 goals. That penchant forscoring may just be a motivation for competitors, like the U.S., to step up their game.
At the Algarve cup in Portual this March, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd busted into action in the group play opener against Norway, all but willing the U.S. to start putting the ball into the net knowing that France, like Germany, has demonstrated a lot more firepower over the past year.
Alongside Bergeroo is assistant coach Thierry Asseloos, another experienced federation staffer. The new regime came in prepared to take the women to the next level.
"We tried to be more professional than it was before. We try to be as professional as we can but we are in the path of what was done before," Asseloos said, adding: "We tried to bring confidence to the players."
The coaching staff were given a mandate and the resources to make France a contender and they came prepared.
"We watched a lot of games on video before we came on," Asseloos said. "I was also involved in women’s football so I knew very much about the French team from this. We knew what we had to do. One example, Louisa Necib. She used to play right in the middle, in the center right behind the forwards and Philippe put her in the left midfield."
The results have been nothing less than a world-stage pronouncement that France is the top pick of many World Cup analysts who see this as Les Bleus’ time. France’s only loss in 17 games in 2014 was a 1-0 defeat to the United States in June. In 2014 and the first part of 2015, France recorded its first-ever wins over Germany, Brazil and the U.S., when France summarily dismissed Jill Ellis’ side in Lorient 2-0 on February 6.
At the Algarve Cup, France again tore through group play before dropping the title match to the U.S., when Bergeroo held back a few key players from starting, including dominating defender Wendie Renard, while Necib was not with the team due to an ankle injury.
Now it’s time for France to take center stage in Canada alongside the U.S., Germany, Japan and Brazil as not only a contender, but also a growing favorite among soccer insiders who say France is the team to beat. Former U.S. women’s national team head coach Tony DiCicco said as much during broadcasts of the Algarve Cup.
Instead of being anxious, France is eager.
"It’s been 18 months since I am the head of the France team. People were interested in women’s football but I feel that there is now a wave of popularity. You have to enjoy it. We have the capacity to beat any team," Bergeroo said.
"The goal is the same. We are not focused on the results of the World Cup. We are just working with a lot of humility and to improve," Asseloos said.
Translated, "improve" for France means to do things the team has not done before, like making it to a World Cup final and, maybe, winning, proving what people are thinking — that France just might be the best team in the world right now.